Archive for June, 2009

// a week off

This is just to alert you that i won’t be updating this blog in the next week; i’m off to Madrid to work with an organisation called Betel. It’s a Christian drug rehabilitation program, but that doesn’t really sum it up adequately – watch this space in a week’s time and i’ll post some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, if you’re curious to find out more, Guy Chevreau’s excellent (if slightly cheesily-titled) book We Dance Because We Cannot Fly is well worth reading, and will tell you the story of Betel worldwide.

See you in a week!

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// on chicken goujons, and Psalm 23

reggaesauceI’ve started cooking properly again in the past few weeks, for the first time since about January. Actually taken the time and effort to chop and plan and watch this dish cooking, I mean, rather than just shoving stuff in the oven and then removing twenty minutes later. It’s tasted better than any food i’ve had in months, too.

Since exams finished, you see, I lost my appetite. Maybe it’s that, while revising, I turned eating into a chore – something that I needed to do, but something that distracted from all the stuff I had to get into my head. Maybe it’s just that i’ve been eating the same foods for so long, and so they’ve picked up some residual connection with exams. For some reason, though, I just haven’t been enjoying food. It’s been hard work. And so the other night was something of a breakthrough, really, a testament to the power of rediscovery and a reclaiming of good, God-given joy.

On some level, it works the same for Scripture too. At 10am this morning I was sitting in Caffe Nero staring at three different translations of Psalm 23, and with literally nothing to say about them. Psalm 23 is an astonishing piece of poetry, but it’s also become part of the cultural lexicon, and trying to read it I found myself desperately searching for some ‘new angle’, banging up against fragments of sermons and songs and opinions in the process, and trying to impress… someone, I don’t know who.

Maybe it was God I was trying impress (I know, I know, I’m an idiot). Maybe it was myself. Maybe it was you, whoever you are, reading this. Whatever; the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t working.

Rediscovery doesn’t necessarily come in new perspectives (that, by the way, is how we get the feminist Jesus, the mythical Jesus, or all kinds of other hypothetical Saviours); it comes in remembering, in re-experiencing something that originally took your breath away. Psalm 23, that used to take my breath away, as did “Tom’s Amazing Bagel Burger” – it’s worthy of the title, by the way – but over time both got stale, predictable, became a method of looking clever and so got stripped of all their joy. It’s entirely possible, it turns out, to reinvent things without the slightest hint of awe or wonder, just as it’s possible to be reinvigorated about something without changing a thing about it.

When I got back into the kitchen the other day, the end product wasn’t particularly amazing, but the process of making the thing reminded me of the joy of being able to put something like that together and how great a gift that kind of food and provision really is. Simply by taking the effort to make my own food rather than buying it ready-made from Sainsbury’s, it suddenly seemed to taste better – and not just because it wasn’t a ready-meal…

The same goes for Psalm 23. Sure, it’s possible to look at it through the perspectives of others, but at the same time that’s almost like ‘ready-meal Christianity’; the same final product, but without any of the effort. It wasn’t until I stopped looking academically, stopped trying to look clever and find the ‘new angle’ – in short, stopped trying to write an essay – that any of it regained its vibrancy, its power. And make no mistake, it is powerful. Try re-writing that Psalm in your own words, take the time to meditate on it, and you’ll see what I mean.

When life seems dull, it’s understandable that phrases like “He makes me lie down in green pastures”, “He leads me besides quiet waters” and “He refreshes my soul” lose their power, as we stop identifying with them. Instead of seeing this poem as an expression of awe or seeking similar experiences, then, it’s easier to turn it into a study, to ask pre-conceived questions like ‘what does this passage tell us about our evangelism?’ or what it says about David’s relationship with God – not bad questions, in the right context, but also methods of distancing us from what’s in front of us. The trick is in learning to look closer; to turn study into praise. Psalm 19, another David Psalm, opens in one translation with the words “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands… they have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world…” All praise ends up being the result of study directed in its proper context, but it’s disturbingly easy to forget that context…

That’s not to suggest in the slightest that the only purpose that the Psalms possess is in modelling an exemplary process; as anyone who’s read these Psalms searching for wisdom or for a revelation of God’s character will tell you, there’s something eternally, profoundly powerful about these words. But they do tell of the need to seek in order to really understand – to not just accept that “the heavens declare the glory of God” as though that were something normal, but to take the time to see what David meant, and in doing so, start to read Scripture – and nature – with wonder again.

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” You must have seen a sky that reminds you of that fact, and that points beyond itself to the God who made it. Was it that image that came you mind when you read those words, though? It wasn’t mine.

Having started to cook properly again, I’m tired of ‘ready-meal’ food, even if it is easier and so allows me to spend more time doing other stuff. I’m just as tired of ‘ready-meal’ Christianity, too, something that requires no real time or energy, just a simple, twenty-minute sermon dug out of the freezer out of some sense of necessity. That’s not the point, and, ultimately, that doesn’t give me the sustenance I need. It just serves to make Scripture, Christianity – this life – a chore, and that was never the way it was supposed to be.

Here’s to an end to ‘ready-meal’ Christianity, then.

Let’s face it, it was never all that good for us anyway…

// plea for help

As i was buying my copy of the Big Issue from Dean, one of the sellers who i try to regularly support here in Oxford, i asked him how he was. He told me that his dad died this weekend.

What was i supposed to do, or say? I mumbled some expressions of sorrow, blurted out that i’d pray for him and gave him £2 for the Big Issue. What should i have done?

Walking away, i was conscious that prayer, and my prayer, probably seems inadequate to Dean. Living on the streets, and with my paltry donation to him doing minimal good. On Saturday i blogged about disconnection. Today i modelled it again; i threw money at a problem and walked away from it. I was ashamed enough that i walked back, but that’s not the point…

So here’s my plea. Dean usually hangs out by Phase Eight on the High St; today he was by the Sainsbury’s on Magdalen St. He’s a tall guy, with black hair, and he sometimes has a goatee beard. If do you walk by him today, talk to him. Buy a Big Issue. Pray about it, and consider giving him more. Imagine what could happen if the Christians in this city came together to support this guy, today, not just in disconnected and impersonal ways, but in ways that truly affect his life. Imagine the witness. Imagine the change that it could enact.

If you’re in Oxford, speak to him. And if you’re not, pray for those who will.

Let’s see what happens.

I, for one, am excited.

// uh-oh.

asleepA number of my friends have finished their final exams in the past few days, and it’s always interesting watching the way in which people choose to react to this event. Broadly speaking, they tend to fall into one of two camps: those who want to get wasted, and those who want to sleep for a long, long time. Both are ways of blocking out the stress of what has gone before, and it’s understandable: few things i’ve experienced this far have been as traumatic as the finals period.

The morning after, people generally wake up and resolve to do all the things that they’ve not been able to do over the past months; eat decent food, go to the cinema, drink, sleep, play Xbox, whatever. I was the same, and it’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with any of these things – they’re blessings from God, and we’re fortunate to have the space to enjoy them. It’s telling, though, that our response frequently involves a retreat into comfort and luxuriance. I’ve currently had nothing to do for the past two and a half weeks, and so have built up a cosy culture of luxury that cushions me fairly well, all in the awareness that I apparently ‘need it’; given that I’m going out into the ‘real world’ soon, I will never get such a sustained period of rest ever again.

The problem with that culture of luxury is that it is profoundly, profoundly unsatisfying. There’s a reason why so many people feel directionless, even depressed, post-finals; in the tough times we end up idealising comfort, stability, luxury, and then when they eventually come, we end up feeling disconnected. We argue that selfishness, self-indulgence, will make us happy, and when we get it it’s awkward to admit that it just isn’t that much fun…

This is the great lie of a culture that argues that the individual is king. Isolation doesn’t eventually hold up. It’s lonely. It’s unsatisfying. It’s purposeless.

It’s not, in short, the way we were created to be.

There’s a reason why the Bible keeps bringing us back to the command to ‘remember’ – among many, many others, too long and too nuanced to detail here, see Deuteronomy 10-12, Isaiah 58, Micah 3-7, Habbakuk 2; see Paul’s teaching on ‘Macedonian Grace’ in 2 Corinthians 8, James’s letter, especially chapter 2; not to mention basically everything that Jesus does. This God is a God of remembrance. There’s a reason, too, why He keeps referring to Himself in the Old Testament as “the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”; because these stories mean something, tell us something about God’s character, and it is important that God’s character is remembered again and again. There’s a reason why we are told to remember the widow, the orphan, the fatherless.

It’s because it is so easy to forget them entirely, to live in a culture of disconnection where we accept that bad things happen elsewhere and that’s sad, but we have to get on with surviving our own lives, which are hard enough as it is. As a Western church we have so many issues – with self-image, with lack of faith, with infighting and cliques, with whatever you or your church struggle with – and the reason, on some level, at least, is that we forgot. We decided that discipleship, maintenance, those were the important things, and that we needed to be ‘complete’ before we could go. We looked inwards, and not outwards…

We did just what we were told not to do, and the terrifying thing is, I’m about to do it now. Last night our student body handed out £5 notes, asking us to double that money in giving to one of two organisations, Tearfund or Heifer International. This is the morning after, and I’m in a Caffe Nero, having spent £6.50 on a new pad of paper, journal and ink cartridges and £2.10 on a cup of coffee. This isn’t the first time, either. I guarantee that I have spent over £20 on coffee alone in the past two weeks.

I have two £5 notes that were given to me, free of charge, sitting in the back of my Bible, and I’m already starting to forget the poor. It’s that easy.

Do you ever wonder why we feel so inadequate, so frightened, so selfish? Do you ever hide your bank balance when you go to a cashpoint as you don’t like to see how much you spent in the last week? Do you carry your ipod around with you everywhere you go as a way of blocking out the world around (even if you do that by playing worship music)?

I do.

And I think I know why, too. It’s because things are not right, and we – I – am scared of looking at it too closely, as that demands big questions, about this world and my place in it. I didn’t hear birds sing in three months. How’s that for disconnection?

I don’t say any of these things lightly, as they’re not easy things to say. I don’t have any real answers, either. Maybe that’s where we have to start dreaming. Try starting reading books of investigative journalism, even if they’re flawed, and start engaging. If you’ve not read them yet, read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. Read books like Wikinomics or Affluenza alongside your bible. Read blogs. Visit demotix, and make it a regular website on your list. Sign up to the 24-7 prayer twitter feed, blog, or youtube updates. Get informed, and then act. Pray, and then go.

Pray for wisdom as to where to act, where your God-given passions are, what screams to you as being wrong or unjust, and then pursue that. Pray for your friends; that they too will get passionate, and if they’re not Christians, pray for God to speak to them through this, that they will see the desperate need for God’s power to change things and come to know Him through that. Pray for enlightened eyes, anything, anything that stops us from being disconnected.

Give, sacrificially, of your time, of your money, of your prayer, of your conversation, until it costs. Some of our reasons for not talking about this are that ‘we just need to get through the day’. That’s fair. We can’t talk about this non-stop, no matter what you may think, and we shouldn’t be, either. But we need to be talking more, thinking more, dreaming more. We need God to transform us, and now’s as good a time as any to ask.

This shouldn’t be a faith that’s standing still. Yes, we were saved by grace alone, and it is on that fact that we are grounded, but we explain the need for transformation in our social interactions, our priorities, our sexual ethics, our morality, both out of the need to be examples to others and as a part of becoming more like God. The time is going to come when we’re going to need to be transformed in this area, too. We need to be.

Rob Bell’s flawed (but nonetheless excellent) book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, which also addresses this issue, ends with the conclusion that “this isn’t just about trying to save the world. It’s about saving ourselves. From the kingdom of comfort. From the priority of preservation. From the empire of indifference. From an exile of irrelevance.” On this, he’s right. And I don’t have many answers to any of this, but I do know this, and it scares me – something has to change.

I can’t go on like this, and neither can Christianity. It shouldn’t, and it mustn’t.

Pray with me. Now. Breathe, stop, turn away from the monitor, and pray.

I don’t know what you’ll say – that’s between you and God – but it could go something like this:

Lord God, praise You that You are good; that justice is in Your very nature; that it is only because of You that I am sitting here today at all.
Open my eyes; where I am blind, teach me to see; where I have followed along with the culture, give me wisdom to know how to act.
Equip me to speak, to act, and to pray. Shape me into Your image; teach me to carry Your message and Your love into this world.
This is hard, and I cannot do it alone. Show me what you have called me to. Give me the courage to go.
For the glory of Your name, now and forever.
Amen.

And I don’t know where next. I don’t. I’m paralysed by a sense of the magnitude of the problem, and my own inadequacy. But I do know that something has to change, and this is as good a time as any to start.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked,” is how the gospel of Luke puts it.

That’s us.

So what are we going to do?

// bad habits and enlightened eyes

clubbingIt’s funny what it takes to make you see clearly every now and again. Last night, on the walls of the club that i ended up in – a club owned by a high-profile, well-known company, and a major venue in the centre of Oxford – the owners had chosen to project pornography on the walls of every room. Not music-video variety soft porn, but actual, real, pornographic video.

Occasionally it takes something that is so obviously, deeply and profoundly wrong to cause you to take stock, and that in itself is a scary realisation. It took somebody projecting porn on the walls to get me thinking about what i take as read, what elements of culture i no longer even notice these days…

From the sublime to the ridiculous: i noticed something else this week, too, about myself in this case. With more time on my hands, i spend more time checking my hair in windows than ever before, wondering how the rest of the world sees me. This has become a habit over time, and it’s not until this week that i’ve ever been really conscious that i’m doing it. It sounds insane, but that, and the decision of my club last night to project porn on their walls, they stem from the same basic root. Both are born out of the same unchecked slippage of culture, the same type of false premise in their early stages.

See, somewhere down the line, somebody decided that nightclubs were fundamentally about sex. People go to clubs to meet partners of the opposite (or the same) sex, the reasoning goes, and so music, outfits, atmosphere, names, even, respond to that. Gradually, this perception gets entrenched; bit by bit, this is what clubs become known for; and then, eventually, when things have got far enough down the line, you start projecting porn on your walls. It’s a logical progression, from a (fairly) logical original premise. It works the same for me; i figure, people respond to you if you look good, and so, gradually, it moves from simply doing my hair in the morning to adjusting my appearance in every reflective surface that i pass. At first it seemed faintly ridiculous, but what seemed ridiculous quickly becomes second nature; along with, incidentally, that original premise, that “appearance matters”, that i’ve picked up from somewhere.

Do you ever wonder if your judgement is so skewed that you’re no longer capable of seeing clearly anymore?

That you’re not capable of viewing culture objectively, as you’re so anchored in it that you don’t even notice now?

blindnessEngaging with culture is a good thing, and i’m glad for the people who do that – who, rather than simply writing things off in simple black-and-white distinctions, strive to work out what culture is telling us and how to respond to that, both as Christians and simply as people. But i’m tired of this culture that plasters valuable, sacred things on the walls and tells us that they are simply commodities to be bought and sold. I’m tired of the assumptions that it forces upon me, and i’m tired of its endlessly reductive attitude…

The apostle John wrote in one of his letters, “do not love the world or anything in the world. If you love the world, love for the Father is not in you. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do – comes not from the Father but from the world.” His isn’t a letter asserting that we simply need to look forward to the promise of a future Heaven, ignoring the here and now (although that is a part of it), it’s a letter that asserts that we can’t, mustn’t see things the way that the world does; that is to say, without reference to the Father, as the end goal in themselves. It’s that road that leads to putting sex on the walls, and it’s a dangerous road. It states that this gift, this creation of God Himself, is cheap, and common – and, related to that, that his people, his creations, they’re cheap and common too. This is it, it states, and sure, it’s fun, but it’s all you’re going to get, and so you may as well plaster the walls with it and seek it, as it doesn’t get any better than this.

We are not a people who sees things in that same way, or at least, we’re called not to be. Paul wrote to the Ephesians and told them, “i pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you”, and that prayer still stands. We need to be a people whose eyes are enlightened, who see things the way they are and assert the value of all the things that the world tries to claim as its own – sees them as gifts from God, and good gifts at that. We need to wake up, as things are not right, and something needs to change.

That doesn’t mean censorship. It certainly doesn’t mean crusading as the ‘moral majority’. But it does mean praying for wisdom, and then standing up to any attempts to strip the world of all reference to God. If culture asserts that it owns these things, we remember, and we recall, that God made them first; that His vision for sex, for money, and for power, is radically different to the world’s ways, and His vision is good.

We need to be a people of enlightened eyes, a people of praise; who see the value of these things, and pay attention to where the world feeds us its false premises so that we don’t slip unthinkingly into the same ways of seeing. Things aren’t the way that they’re supposed to be, but we’d do well to pay attention to where we’ve normalised these things, stopped noticing them entirely.

Hopefully it won’t take porn on the walls to get you to look again, although it did for me. Nonetheless, i’m grateful that it reminded me of that greater reality, that this is not where it all stops. And i, for one, hope that i can keep my eyes open to what is truly going on here, rather than just slipping back into habitual blindness.

Join me. Ask those questions. Take the time to give yourself an appraisal. And work out where, and how, things need to change.

It might just be the most valuable, and thrilling, thing that you ever do.

I hope so.

// songs for summer (1)

Summer necessitates new music, so here’s some of the music that’s made it onto my ipod recently:

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Modest Mouse: “Float On”:


Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock has the weirdest voice, but stick it out to the Chorus and you’ll find that this song embeds itself into your brain and simply refuses to go away…

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Richard Hawley: “The Ocean”:


Just a sample from Richard Hawley’s excellent album “Coles Corner”, he’s yet to write a bad song. It took a while to grow on me, but when it does, there’s a mellow beauty to it that’s pretty rare. Many of his other videos are on Youtube, and well worth checking out.

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Jon Foreman: “House of God, Forever”:


Jon Foreman’s re-imagining of Psalm 23 is a thing of beauty. The moment in the second chorus where the two vocal harmonies enmesh should send shivers down your spine, but it’s the breezy harmonica in the intro that really does it for me. Just about everything Jon has done acoustically is brilliant, but special mention goes to “Behind your Eyes” and “The Cure for Pain”, as well as “Your Love is Strong”, which i’ve posted elsewhere…

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God Help the Girl: “Come Monday Night”:


Exciting chiefly in that it is, to all intents and purposes, a new Belle and Sebastian album (+musical), this doesn’t quite scale the heights of early B&S but is at least pointing in the right direction. And any new Belle and Sebastian is a cause for celebration…

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That’s enough for now, i think; it should keep you going for the next week or so. Enjoy!

// this is what love looks like…

sweets (wow)

Something about what Heidi Baker said a couple of weeks ago stuck in my mind – one particular phrase, to be precise. “Love looks like something.” Simple, admittedly, but also possible to miss entirely…

What does your image of love look like?

There’s a couple of simple, stock Christian answers – first, that our image of love is the image of Christ; dying on a cross in an act of perfect sacrifice, giving his life in submission, born out of love for others – in short, modelling what perfect love looks like. The second is the ‘1 Corinthians 13‘ answer: love is patient, love is kind; it always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres; it is not self-seeking, and so on. Both are good answers, but if they’re yours, then again, it’s worth asking – what does your image of love look like?

That is to say, when you think of love, what comes to mind? You know, what do you picture love that is “patient and kind” as looking like in practice? What is your image of Jesus – is he an exemplary figure from a book, or a day-to-day reality? None of this is intended to be condemnatory, but they’re good questions to ask.

Love looks like something. So what does love look like?

Recently, what’s struck me most of all hasn’t been the abstract qualities of love – ie. it’s patient, it’s kind, it perseveres, trusts, hopes – but the actual, practical reality. I’m astonished at the amount of people who have tolerated my exhaustion and rudeness in the past couple of months spent revising; my cell group, who showed up every day of my exams, bringing sweets to my house; the people who prayed, who took time out to check I was okay, who showed up to celebrate at the end of it all. Thanks, guys: you help me see what love looks like. This might sound like trivial stuff, but it arguably represents a deep resolve towards sacrifice that has a resonance beyond itself. There is more going on here than initially meets the eye.

Paul wrote to the Galatians telling them, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”; to the Ephesians he described how “we are God’s workmanship, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand.” I couldn’t count the number of people who come up to the front of our services weekly asking for a greater experience of God’s love. That’s a great desire, but we need to accept that God’s love is made visible in His people and given in order that we demonstrate it to the world…

Love looks like something, but what if love looks like you? If you have ‘been crucified with Christ, and now Christ lives in you’, that means that you are the image of Christ’s love, at least in part. Sure, we’re being transformed, and we’re still flawed, but we need to remember that we are also reflections of God’s love to the rest of this world. A greater experience of God’s love doesn’t simply come down to receiving a greater sense of security and purpose, although that may be part of it; it’s given in order that we look outwards, that we start communicating that love elsewhere.

Love looks like something, and there’s something in that. What does our love look like? Is it a love focussed inwardly, on God, in church; on receiving His love, and pouring it back on Him? Is it a love focussed outwards, on His people, pouring out into the wider world in a natural overflow? It must be both, of course, but it can never be just one or the other. In the same way, our love either looks abstract or visible, and again that question recurs: how visible is our love? How noticeable is it? It would pay to be asking ourselves those questions, especially as we stand in church asking for a greater dose of God’s love – do we know what we are asking for? And do we realise what it will cost?

Maybe it’s just me that occasionally struggles with worshipping an invisible God, but its also comforting to know that He’s transforming His people into His image, a visible reflection of His character, His nature, His goodness. Our part is to make sure that we keep living like that, keep seeking and experiencing His love and keep modelling it to the world.

Love looks like something.

Is it you?